Touring is no less important today; in some ways, it may be more important. Yet, ironically, in making a nod to its centenary and the glory of its vast travelogue, the Philadelphia Orchestra tomorrow sets out on a "Whistle-Stop Tour" that is its most unambitious in some time.
There will be no romantic old whistles in this "whistle-stop" - only 727s and buses. Hitting only five cities (Charlotte, N.C.; Greenville, S.C.; Miami, West Palm Beach and Orlando), the tour has limited breadth. The repertoire, led by Wolfgang Sawallisch, is warhorsey - Mozart's Symphony No. 40, Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice and the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition.
But domestic touring isn't about glamour, or even artistic intrepidity. It's about pressing the flesh. The orchestra's history is filled with small tours to modest places, like the one in 1911 to Pittsburgh, Akron and Cleveland, or the 1938 tour to the Carolinas, hitting Columbia, Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Asheville.
What was different then is that the orchestra toured domestically more often - every year, in fact, from 1936 to 1974. So frequent were the visits to Toledo, New Orleans or Fort Lauderdale that for many Americans the Philadelphia Orchestra was somewhere in the vicinity every few years.
Then the international touring began, and by the 1990s, Osaka saw the Philadelphia Orchestra more often Pittsburgh.
Why isn't the orchestra visiting cultural capitals for its centennial "Whistle-Stop" tour? Another sign of a perilous decline into provincialism? It's true that an ambitious tour would have been a more fitting way of recognizing what 100 years of great music-making has meant to the nation. But the orchestra already plays several concerts a year in New York and other big cities, winning artistic vindication from different music critics and audiences.
And tours to out-of-the-way places are a more noble mission, since it's not the big cities that need to hear more big-orchestra music.
"A visit by the Philadelphia Orchestra in Greenville makes a bigger impact than a concert in Atlanta," says orchestra president Joseph H. Kluger. "In a sense, one of the things that made us as famous as the Philadelphia Orchestra is today is that we were willing to go to the heartland of America, and there are a lot of places where there are many people interested in classical music and never get to hear an orchestra live."
The current tour was not imagined solely by the orchestra. It had help from its sponsor, First Union Corp., which has its headquarters in Charlotte and seeks to enhance its profile in each of the banking cities on tour.
"It's one of these iterative processes," said Kluger in describing discussions between the orchestra and bank on where the orchestra should go. "We certainly tried to match up as best we could places we wanted to go and they were willing to take us where First Union has markets. They were very supportive."
Kluger says the orchestra is trying to organize a major American tour for 2001 that would better recall its substantial wanderlust.
The orchestra and Sawallisch still have much work to do together, whatever his remaining time here may be, and touring is an important tool in finishing that work. There's no better way to drive home to the public the accomplishments of an extremely successful artistic marriage, especially since people best recognize an orchestra's work through a podium personification. "Isn't that Ormandy's orchestra?" one can easily imagine people in Miami Beach or Omaha asking.
Well, no, it's not. This week's tour will mark Sawallisch's first appearance with the Philadelphians in all five cities on the itinerary. It's the first time the orchestra has ever been to West Palm Beach.
The limited scope of this week's tour aside, domestic touring may become easier for the Philadelphia Orchestra soon.
Says Kluger: "We've done predominantly foreign touring in the past decade, partly because of economics, because Asian and Latin American fees were slightly higher than in the U.S. Given some of the challenges of international touring, the economic downturn in other parts of the world and the cost of traveling great distances, which has skyrocketed, by comparison the economics of domestic touring don't seem as bad. The challenge is finding corporate sponsorship for domestic touring."
One might think that in an electronic age, the necessity of touring has diminished. This is not the case for our orchestra, whose electronic potential remains sadly underutilized. It does not record commercially, it does not have national radio broadcasts.
But even if it did, orchestral music is still best experienced live. You can't replicate the thrill of direct contact, the interaction between orchestra and audience that varies from city to city.
And touring is important for the musicians, too, to get a charge from audiences who are often more demonstrative than home audiences (although audience reception at the Academy of Music this season has been unusually robust).
Kluger says tours "corroborate in a more objective way" the quality of the orchestra.
"I think we have a very loyal public, but not everyone understands how good this orchestra is."
Peter Dobrin's e-mail address is email@example.com